Michael Justin Noetzel, MD was born on April 3, 1951, and raised in Cleveland, Ohio. He died on February 20, 2022, just six weeks before his 71st birthday, and just over four months from his intended date of retirement from Washington University School of Medicine which would have also marked the 45th anniversary of his arrival in St. Louis. Over those 70+ years, Michael lived a remarkable life of kindness, generosity, and service to others.
Michael graduated in 1969 from St. Ignatius High School, in the Ohio City neighborhood of Cleveland. While at St. Ignatius, he was a standout scholar athlete lettering in football and baseball. He went on to attend Yale University where he was also a standout scholar athlete, lettering in football and baseball, and excelling in the former. As a freshman safety, he helped the 1969 Yale Bulldogs tie for first place in the Ivy League; he was named a member of the All-Ivy 1st Team in 1972. He was awarded the Woody Knapp Memorial Trophy, which is “given to that outstanding member of the football team who best typifies the cheerful dispositional, leadership qualities and unselfish devotion to others” – qualities that would characterize Michael throughout his life.
After graduating cum laude from Yale, Michael attended the University of Virginia School of Medicine, graduating in 1977, whereupon he moved to St. Louis for residency training in Pediatrics and Pediatric Neurology, joining the likes of Blaise Bourgeois, Joan Conry, Ed Kovnar, Tom Langan, and Bill Turk. Upon completing his training, he was appointed to the faculty of the Washington University School of Medicine in 1982, joining a Department of Pediatrics chaired by Philip Dodge and a Division of Pediatric Neurology directed by Arthur Prensky. Other faculty members in the Division at that time included Ed Dodson, Ruthmary Deuel, Steve Rothman, and Joe Volpe. Michael would go on to spend his entire 45-year career at Washington University and St Louis Children’s Hospital. He was a pediatric neurologist who was a true “quintuple threat” – clinician, researcher, teacher, administrator, and role model. He had unparalleled personal qualities that allowed him to excel in all of those roles, while also maintaining his persona of a down-to-earth, “regular guy”. Utilizing all of his talents, the Ivy League All-Star led St Louis Children’s Hospital flag football and baseball teams to victories in the 1980s, perhaps the first and only time a neurologist filled this role at our hospital.
He was the Director of the Division of Pediatric and Developmental Neurology from 2007-2014 and the founder and Medical Director of the Neurorehabilitation Program and Therapy Services at St Louis Children’s Hospital from 1990-2020. Although he planned to officially retire in July 2022, he was unwilling to retire his reflex hammer and was already on the schedule to teach as an Emeritus Professor in residents’ clinic in the fall.
Michael’s scientific accomplishments were as vast as the variety of conditions managed by child neurologists, and reflected his recognition of the power of collaborative, multicenter research. He received a Clinical Investigator Development Award from the NIH in 1984. He went on to play an important role in several major NIH-funded trials including the Diabetes Control and Complication Trial and Silent Cerebral Infarct Multi-Center Clinical Trial focusing on sickle cell disease. Both studies resulted in landmark publications in the New England Journal of Medicine that continue to guide the management of these diseases today. Recently chosen to serve a 5-year term on the International Pediatric Stroke Study Publications Committee, Michael was looking forward to influencing the field even during retirement.
Michael was an active participant in the Child Neurology Society, serving as Councillor for the Midwest from 2001-2003. He rarely missed a meeting, where former colleagues and trainees looked forward to seeing him every year.
Michael received numerous awards for his research and teaching, including the 2013 Distinguished Clinician Award from Washington University and the 2020 John Doronzo Memorial Award for Clinical Excellence from the Brain Injury Association of Missouri.
Throughout his career, he became known as an outstanding educator to hundreds of medical students, residents, and fellows. His generosity of spirit and time was extraordinary as he exemplified the mentor whose door was always open. He was deeply invested in building the careers and success of all those around him.
Michael had immense respect for the expertise of those on his team. An excellent case in point is the Neurorehabilitation Program at St. Louis Children’s Hospital, which he founded and built. The team was quite large, including physical therapists, occupational therapists, speech language pathologists, pharmacists, care coordinaors, nurses, nurse practitioners, psychologists, social workers, school teachers, art and music therapists, nutritionists, and child life specialists. Michael led that team by making sure that for everyone around that table, their voice and expertise was heard, their concerns heeded, and that their contributions to the care of the patient and family were recognized, respected, and integrated into the plan.
For those of us who worked with him for many years, he was the quintessential servant leader. Michael embodied this concept of leadership, which came naturally to him. He was an exceptional and empathic listener, who modeled ownership. His humble demeanor belied the wisdom he delivered, often with a chuckle and a twinkle in his eye. He experienced immense joy from the success of his trainees and junior faculty. By contrast, he seemingly never demonstrated elation over his own success. His humility, yoked to a strong sense of purpose, was ever present. Michael had an understated way of making us all better physicians and, frankly, better human beings.
From playing softball in Forest Park men’s league, ski trips with family to coaching his daughter’s grade school basketball teams where he was known to wear the same “lucky” vest every game (even though they rarely won), and planting trees in St Louis as part of Forest ReLeaf of Missouri, Michael enjoyed a life rich with love, service, and purpose. Known as “Dutch” by his grandkids, he led them in games of whiffleball, funny photo contests, and was even filmed playing slip n’ slide in the backyard. Michael is survived by his wife (Mary), children (Evan, Justin, Katie, and Anna), and 8 grandchildren.
Late in 2021, Michael’s colleague and former trainee, Laura Jansen, had the honor of telling him that he had been selected to receive the 2022 Roger and Mary Brumback Lifetime Achievement Award from the Child Neurology Society. In response to the congratulatory notes sent by colleagues and former trainees, Michael replied “…when a lifetime achievement award is given to an individual physician, it reflects to a significant degree the environment in which that physician practices medicine. In my case, for nearly 45 years, I have been blessed to pursue a career in Child Neurology surrounded by truly great leaders and mentors, and kind and dedicated healthcare providers…I cherish my association with each and every one of you.”
Michael’s impact on the discipline of child neurology, Washington University, St. Louis Children’s Hospital, his students and trainees, and the lives of his countless patients will be measured in generations. His generous spirit and kindness will be sorely missed by all who had the opportunity to know him.